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April 4, 2007

Delaware House votes to repeal drug mandatories

In a notable sign of the sentencing times, the Delaware state House of Representatives passed a bill yesterday to eliminate minimum mandatory sentencing for drug offenders.  Here are details from this fascinating local article:

After a lengthy debate that pitted police officers and prosecutors against defense attorneys and retired judges, the state House of Representatives passed a bill Tuesday eliminating minimum mandatory sentencing for drug offenders.  House Bill 71, which passed 26-13 after a two-hour debate, would change mandatory prison sentences to presumptive terms left to the discretion of the sentencing judge.

Under existing state law, a judge must impose the minimum mandatory sentence provided in the statute.  The presiding officer cannot weigh any mitigating factors to possibly lessen the prison term. “Minimum mandatory sentencing transfers sentencing power from judges to the prosecuting attorneys,” said Edmund N. “Ned” Carpenter II, a former defense attorney and deputy attorney general and past president of the Delaware State Bar Association. “It gives the prosecuting attorney the power to threaten the defendant if he doesn’t plead guilty to various charges.”

House Speaker Rep. Terry R. Spence, R-New Castle, said he sponsored HB 71 because the debate surrounding minimum mandatory sentencing has been brewing for several years but never made it to the House floor. “Hearing both sides, I felt that the time has come this year for this issue to be fully discussed on the floor,” Rep. Spence said. “The sentiment from the majority of the House was to put the final decision in a judge’s hands.”

But members of the law enforcement community, including the attorney general’s office and the Delaware Police Chiefs’ Council, said the sentencing statute applies mainly to the “worst of the worse,” and is an effective tool for them to use.  State Prosecutor Richard Andrews said of 6,300 drug arrests in 2005, minimum mandatory sentencing was only applied to 133 convicts.  “Mandatory sentencing is being handed out to people who rightly deserve to spend at least a couple years in prison,” Mr. Andrews said. “By weakening the drug laws, our streets are going to become more violent and we will see more crime,” said Newport Police Chief Michael Capriglione, president of the Delaware Police Chief’s Council....

Retired Wilmington police officer Rep. Dennis P. Williams, D-Wilmington, said minimum mandatory sentencing provides a necessary tool for police to get additional information from suspects and often leads to bigger arrests. “They put themselves in this position,” Rep. Williams said. “I don’t see the big issue here. This is just a lot of fanfare. “It’s a bad piece of legislation.”

Former state Supreme Court justice Joseph T. Walsh said judges already have a great deal of discretion in sentencing when it comes to capital murder cases. The judge can go against a 12-0 recommendation for death. Judges, Mr. Walsh said, take that responsibility seriously. “In each of those situations, I held a person’s liberty literally in my hand,” Mr. Walsh said. “I had an obligation to impose a fair sentence, fair to the defendant and fair to society. “It’s a very difficult balance. With the advent of minimum mandatory sentencing, there is no balance. The focus is entirely on the offense.”

UPDATE:  This interesting article details that "Louis J. Freeh, the nation's former top cop and a self-described 'law enforcement guy,' is leading an effort in Delaware to repeal state laws that require minimum prison terms for convicted drug offenders."

April 4, 2007 at 09:57 AM | Permalink

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